The Good Caused by Religion--The Example of Reverend Martin L. King and the Civil Rights Movement

We often hear of all the evil done in the name of the religion, but rarely about all the good done in the name of religion. That was one reason I wrote articles describing how the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman empire resulted in the discouragement and criminalization of infanticide and the encouragement and institutionalization of charity.

A more recent example is the American Civil Rights Movement. Many if not the majority of its leadership were pastors and reverends. Most notable of these is the Rev. Martin Luther King (who the atheistic "Rational Responders" recently proclaimed to have been mentally ill). The fact that these leaders were also clergy was not a coincidence. Their Christian faith infused and motivated not only their vision but also the courage to work for that vision. There is no atheistic moral justification for demanding equal treatment. There is no atheistic moral justification for anything, such as charity, equality, liberty, or against anything, such as rape, infanticide, or murder. It is of course possible to act good and be an atheist, but it is impossible for atheism to tell us what is good even that there is such a thing as good.

The Reverend Martin L. King was a Baptist minister. While working for civil rights in Birmingham, Alabama, Rev. King required that volunteers sign a Civil Rights Ten Commandments. Here are three of them:

* MEDITATE daily on the teachings of Jesus;
* WALK and TALK in the manner of love, for GOD is love;
* PRAY daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free.

Rev. King's work as a civil rights leader was a ministry infused with Christianity and faith in Jesus. Freedom was for all because all were God's children. In his I Have a Dream speech, King referred three times to "all God's children." (He often used that phrase in other speeches, including when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize.) When he closed his I Have a Dream Speech, Rev. King said:

When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual,

Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

Throughout his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Rev. King referred to Paul and Jesus and their teachings as examples that motivated him and justified his actions.

Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town.


Isn't this like condemning Jesus because his unique God-consciousness and never-ceasing devotion to God's will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion?


Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God." And John Bunyan: "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience." And Abraham Lincoln: "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." And Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal ..."

So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Are we to be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremist for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime---the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment.

He also appeals to God's law as supersceding man's law:

There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there fire two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the Brat to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all"

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.


Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators"' But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated.

He is clear that those religious in the South who resisted civil rights were not doing the will of God.

One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

Perhaps Martin L. King summed up his desire at the end of his I See the Promised Land speech: "I just want to do God's will."

Rev. King is rightly remembered for the key role he played in bringing equality to African-Americans in the United States. He should also be remembered as an example of how Christianity caused great good by inspiring and justifying one of the greaterst civil rights leaders in history. But the relationship between Rev. King's Christian faith and his civil rights efforts are not unique. Rather, it is typical of other leaders from that time. In his book The Culture of Disbelief, liberal law professor Stephen Carter observed:

The leaders of the civil rights movement spoke openly of the commands of God as a crucial basis for their public activism. They made no effort to disguise their true intention: to impose their religious morality on others, on the dissenters who would rather segreate their hotels or lunch counters.

Thank God such men and women dared to fight for the principles dictated to them by their Christian faith.


Frank Walton said…
Thank you for this well written post, Layman.

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